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British genetics project searches for lost apple varieties to protect fruit in the face of climate crisis

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British genetics project searches for lost apple varieties to protect fruit in the face of climate crisis

Gardeners are searching for lost apple varieties by sequencing the genetics of trees from ancient orchards, hoping they possess traits that could help the fruit survive climate change.

Heritage apple trees at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Rosemoor Garden will be sampled this spring in a bid to find species of apple trees enjoyed by people hundreds of years ago.

It is hoped that some varieties that thrive despite pest problems and climate change will contain genetic traits that can be used to support the UK’s commercial orchards.

The University of Bristol and craft cider maker Sandford Orchards will receive the genotype of apples from rare and important orchards across England and will specifically look at ‘surviving varieties’ which have not been previously recorded. Some trees could be the last of their species and their unique genetic code could be preserved thanks to the project.

Keith Edwards, Emeritus Professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “When we embarked on this project we were overwhelmed by the public interest. The large number of samples we received in the mail is testament to the importance of apples in the UK food landscape. Identifying and conserving lost or rare apple cultivars is not only about safeguarding biodiversity, it can also strengthen the resilience of the UK apple industry in the face of climate change.

They also look at types of grafted trees in the ancient past. Each tree grown from a seed has a unique genetic fingerprint, while some trees observed will have been grafted and share a fingerprint. If trees from two different orchards share the same genetic fingerprint and are not already registered in an existing collection, it means that at one time they were considered a good tree to grow either for fruit consumption or for cider making.

The need to preserve the UK’s orchards is not just commercial; They also provide very important habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, and one that is declining, horticulturists say. In addition to orchards being uprooted for development, some farmers have destroyed theirs as growing challenges, including competition with cheap imports and climate change, have made the apple grower less commercially viable.

Since 1900, 80% of the UK’s small orchards have been lost. Gardens such as RHS Rosemoor are therefore important because they conserve rare regional apple cultivars. Near the Rosemoor trees is a wildflower meadow that attracts pollinators to the area, boosting the apple harvest.

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Barny Butterfield, founder and owner of Sandford Orchards, said: “The aim of this project is to find excellent apples, whether for fermentation, cooking or eating. By identifying “survivors” that have not been propagated or kept in a collection, we have the opportunity to step back in time and celebrate the incredible diversity of apples native to this country.

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